Monthly Archives: September 2014

Where it all went wrong

The Healthcare Disaster in a nutshell

Her Ladyship recently had some routine blood-work done. Here is a rather disturbing excerpt from the bill.

BillWhat does this tell us?

  1. Insurance has made healthcare stupidly expensive – nearly two grand for a simple blood test? #YaGottaBeKiddinMe
  2. Insurance is mandatory – With insurance, the cost is about $125…
  3. The uninsured are up the creek without a paddle. …but without insurance, I would be on the hook for the full – ridiculously overpriced – amount.

This is mute testimony to the game that Health Insurance has become: the providers send massively overinflated bills to the Insurance companies, who then cut them down to size using specially-negotiated “sweetheart” deals – while those who have no insurance pay full price.

This is simply not right.

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Arrrr!

Assassin’s Creed: Pirates reviewed

I never intended to buy this game. At $4.99, it was more than I am normally prepared to pay for a phone/tablet game. Funny how that works: we spend huge sums of money on hardware and phone data plans, then balk at spending a few bucks on a game. This seems particularly odd given that PC and Xbox games generally cost $20 to $60, while the vast majority of Android/iPhone games cost less than $5.

I remember when in bygone years game publishers used to bleat about how piracy was the reason that games were so expensive. That was before they abandoned the PC as a gaming platform, switched to Consoles, and piracy pretty much disappeared — and the prices stayed high. But I digress; that is another story for another time.

Fast-forward to the present, and at the other end of the playing field, the bottom has dropped out of the phone/tablet gaming market. My guess is that with the staggering number of free and freemium titles on offer, the idea of paying up front for a phone/tablet game seemed ridiculous.

This point was apparently not lost on UbiSoft, publishers of Assassin’s Creed: Pirates (ASP). Recently, they decided to lower the cost of entry from $4.99 to just ten cents. Naturally, I decided to give it a try. The experiment must have been a success, as they eventually made it now free-to-play; it is available in the Android Play Store or the Apple App Store.

The initial download is 7MB, but then it downloads a gigabyte or so of data before the game begins, so make sure that you are connected to wi-fi if you have to pay for bandwidth. This may seem like a lot, but it is worth it if you have the space, as you will find out later.

You play the part of one Alonzo Batilla, who starts the game as a prisoner tied up in the hold of a trading ship. He is unexpectedly liberated by a pirate named La Buse (“The Buzzard”) and promptly starts down the well-worn path towards piracy, plunder etc.

Now the first thing that any wannabe pirate needs is… a ship. La Buse gives him one — a pathetic little gunship with a few miserable peashooters for guns. Before long, however, he gets to upgrade to a bigger ship: a schooner named “The Wanderer”. There are bigger, more powerful ships available, from the aforementioned gunships and schooners to brigs, frigates, to the mighty Man O’ War. But those are expensive and at the start you don’t have the money.

Some ships — such as the schooner HMS Drake — are unlocked by completing a mission. Others like a brig with red sails called “The Dragon” can be acquired as part of an in-app-purchase. But most of them require the expenditure of good old-fashioned gold coins.

Big-ass Ship Ahoy!

Ah, Gold… beloved of dwarves, dragons and pirates. Gold can be earned by completing missions, sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of vanquished enemies, or just sailing around and picking up objects bobbing around in the water.

Even the best ship in a pirate fleet is nothing without a crew of scalawags, ruffians, ne’er-do-wells and other dregs of the sea. They can be found in the Tavern end pressed into service in return for then requisite number of gold coins, and range in skills — and price levels — from the humble ship’s boy (what’s his job, I wonder? Don’t ask…) to the First Mate. Each bring with them special abilities called “Perks”, which may be normal, rare, epic or legendary. The perks may then be equipped to various parts of your ship, and provide useful features like extra speed, repair, instant reload of all weapons, and advantageous changes in various game parameters, such as number/power/width of shots, area of influence, cooldowns and timers. Most perks can be upgraded in return for more of your hard-earned cash

A minor irritation: before you can play the game you have to navigate (geddit?) no less than three separate loading screens. When you start the program, you are presented with a video that can be skipped (but cannot be disabled), then on to the “Home” screen.

You then click on a “Play” button, which takes you to a map screen. Then you select the location, and finally board your ship to shiver your timbers and swash your buckle. The entire process takes a minimum of X seconds on my Nexus 7.

The first thing that I have to say about this game is that it is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The screenshots do not begin to capture the fluid elegance of your ship gliding across the water; the lush tropical scenery; the reflection of the land in the water; the water-running-down-the-screen-when-it’s-raining effect; your scurvy crew walking about on the ship… it really does feel like you are in a movie. Different types of weather are faithfully and lovingly recreated; from the mirror-like seas on a calm day to rough seas, storms and lightning in the middle of the night. Kudos to the programmers for doing such a beautiful job. How they managed to fit it all into about a gigabyte of data storage is beyond me.

The sound is also beautifully done. The creaking of the ship, the roar of the cannons. The symphonic soundtrack is nicely done, and reminds me of the music in a certain pirate movie franchise I would mention, but *ahem* won’t. Even when just sailing along, the crew are prone to break into song. This is quite pleasing at first, but after a few weeks of playing, it can get quite irritating.

The gameplay itself involves sailing around — either interactively or by dragging your ship in map view, completing various types of missions. Each region on the map has a “primary” mission, that forms part of the back-story. Completing the primary mission at one location unlocks one at the next. However, in addition, each map has a bunch of secondary missions, which include Assassination, Races, Fetch-the-Treasure, Survival, Supership and Search-and-Rescue.

In addition to those missions, you can go fishing, whale hunting, attacking slavers (they always escape, but they throw the slaves overboard, and you can pick them up to complete the mission) picking fights with Merchants or Naval Vessels, hunting for treasure, or just sailing around picking up flotsam and jetsam.

Stuff Ahoy!

Stuff Ahoy!

The combat model is turn-based, but very nicely done; enemy ships either fire cannons (which you must dodge) or lob explosives at you (which you must dispatch with a tap or a swipe).

Here Comes Trouble

Here Comes Trouble

Once it is your turn, you start with Round Shot, Swivel shot, and canister shot, and later upgrades and ships unlock the Mortar and Heavy Shot. The ships dance around in front of you, and when using the slower weapons such as Round Shot and Mortar it is important to remember to aim where the enemy ship is heading, not where it currently is.

This leads me to biggest criticism of the game — the lack of a cloud save feature. Given that the game encourages you to log in to FakesBook and Google Play, this is an egregious omission. Let me be clear: If your game supports In-App Purchases (IAPs), the ability to save your progress in the cloud is an absolute necessity.

For those of us who are geeks, this is not a problem: if you have a rooted device (all of mine are), Titanium backup can save the game and the data, thus safeguarding your investment of time, effort, and, possibly, cash.

A cloud-save feature also makes it possible to port your progress from one device to another; a highly desirable feature, as this game is something of a battery-killer, and can kill a typical smartphone or tablet battery in less than three hours.

A close second to the lack of a cloud-save feature is the support… or more specifically, the lack of it. UbiSoft has a dedicated support board for this game, but the extent of their participation seems to be limited to setting the board up; there is very little in the way of moderators answering technical or gameplay questions. Bloody useless in my opinion, and the sort of thing that large software houses are (in)famous for.

Another feature that I would like to see is the ability to get in the first shot is you engage an enemy first. The way things currently are, you get to open fire first when engaging a merchant ship, but Navy ships always attack first, regardless of who initiates the engagement.

Here are some other suggestions:

  • I would like to see a “Quickstart” option that will pick up the game at the last location instead of having to navigate all those loading screens.
  • Either add some extra sea shanties to relieve the monotony, or add an option to turn them off — as they soon become maddening — Independently of the musical soundtrack.
  • The first mate has a tendency to sing out “Stay out of their range Captain!” when there is nobody around. Will somebody please keel-haul him or make him walk the plank or something?
  • If you should get a pop-up (like when you enter a fishing area for which you do not have a hook, or pass into engagement range of a naval ship), you are interrupted and your ship stops dead. This is annoying enough, but on a drowning-sailor mission, If this happens, the delay means that the sailor almost invariably drowns before you can get to him, making the Drowning Sailor missions among the most frustrating and difficult to complete, even thought they are not that difficult.

Drowning Man

To conclude, a lovely game with a few irritating lack-of-features. But that said, I recently spent $7.99 on a pack (100,000 gold pieces, a Double-XP perk and a cute-but-almost-useless ship with cool-looking red sails). Even though I do not need any of those goodies, I like to support good coding, and therefore consider it money well spent. Seeing the same pack on sale for $1.99 a few weeks later was a little annoying though…

But this game is in dire need of a cloud-save feature. And some decent support (I am thinking of writing a hints and tips guide). And some additional configuration options.

Sailing into the Sunset

Sailing into the Sunset

Beard

From time to time I try to grow a beard.

This is what I am aiming for.

The Most Interesting Beard In The World

The Most Interesting Beard In The World

This is what I end up with:

The Ugliest Beard In The World

The Ugliest Beard In The World

I guess I’m going to go clean-shaven…

Aston Martin

I finally upgraded to Real Racing 3 version 2.1.0 – the “Aston Martin” update.

As the title suggests, this update represents the debut of a brand-new marque – the prestigious British American name of Bond, James Bond Aston Martin. This version introduces double-oh-three new cars, namely the DB9, the Vanquish and the V12 Vantage S in ascending order of sexiness.

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The new Astons feature in a new series, “Aston Martin Expedition”, which fits in half way up the tree between “Prestige Powermatch” and “Euro Supercar Duel”.

Screenshot_2014-08-10-07-28-48

There is also another new series: “All Star Vendetta Series”, which is optional and may found tucked underneath the “Zenith Series”.

Screenshot_2014-08-10-07-29-48

Other new changes in this version include Customization, Photo Mode, Gold Achievements.

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The new cars feel unique. The acceleration is powerful enough to reach some serious speeds, but it is the brakes that really impress – they are absolutely legendary. Unlike the Porsche 911s, however, the Astons handled beautifully and predictably with complete control and plenty of warning that the car is about to lose grip, which makes for cars that are great fun to drive.

Stay tuned for the next upgrade — Open Wheelers.